Questions About School Selection

Deciding Where to Apply
How many schools?
Why Not Apply to All the Med Schools?
Medical Schools Overseas
Mission Fit and Medical School Selection
What Are Top Schools Looking For?
New U.S. Medical Schools
When Should I Make My Med School List?
Problem Based Learning


Deciding Where to Apply

Question:  Hi HPA – I just came to one of the meetings for people applying to medical school.  I know it’s kind of early but I’m having trouble figuring out where to apply.  You said at the meeting that you’ll give us feedback on our list of schools during our pre-application interview, which is great.  But how do we come up with our “tentative” list in the first place?  Thanks!

Answer:  To review what we discussed at the pre-application meeting, here are some aspects of schools to consider:

  • Purchase access to the AAMC publication, Medical School Admissions Requirements (or MSAR). This will be your official guide to MD and MD/PhD programs.
  • Is the school public or private?  Consult MSAR or the HPA spreadsheet to determine how much your state residency will play a factor when applying to public medical schools.  Look at how many non-resident matriculants the school had in last year’s entering class. Generally speaking, we will advise you to have all of the public medical schools in your home state on your list, plus private schools of your choosing.  If you are not a U.S. citizen, this will restrict your list.
  • Curriculum…  What type of teaching styles allowed you to learn best at Princeton? How interested are you in doing independent research? Are you interested in a problem-based or integrated curriculum, or more traditional lecture style? Visit the schools’ websites and the curriculum explanations in the MSAR to get a better sense of how schools’ “pre-clinical” years might differ from school to school.
  • Seeing Patients…  How soon would you like to get into a clinical setting? Does the school put you in the clinic right away, or after one semester or part of a “block”?
  • Location…
    • Where will you be doing your clinical work and rotations—what types of hospitals? What patient demographic?
    • Where do you go to have fun and relieve stress during difficult times—do you go camping or do you go clubbing?  City or country?
    • Who is your psychological and emotional support—family? Friends?  Will they be close by?
  • How much of a difference in cost of attendance and average debt is there among your schools? Your home-state public medical schools will be a good deal cheaper to attend than private medical schools. Is the difference going to radically change your amount of long-term debt or is the difference really not that great in the big scheme of things?
  • Remember that where you end up going may very well come down to a gut feeling based on the front-row seat you will have on your interview day. In the end, the decision is often instinctive, especially when all other ‘rational’ factors are relatively equal. You’ll know so much more after you’ve interviewed.
  • Also of note:  We recommend you apply to 15-18 well-chosen schools. The national average number of applications per applicant in 2017 was 16.  The Princeton average is a little higher. 

How many schools should I apply to?

Hi HPA – Is there a certain number of medical schools I should apply to so that I maximize my chances of acceptance?
Looking at our med school applicants over the past four years, for students and alums who were accepted to at least one med school, the average number of applications they submitted was 23. For those who were not accepted to medical school, the average number of applications they submitted was also 23! Getting in has a lot less to do with quantity than strategy. Our most successful applicants were those who applied to 16-20 medical schools; as a group, they received an average of 3.7 acceptances per applicant. Applicants should target schools where their academic metrics, experiences, and interests match the student body. You can consult the MD MSAR for average MCAT & GPA data for each school, and individual websites often describe “selection factors” they are looking for in applicants. For real life examples of how students target schools and demonstrate their fit, read some of the AAMC’s Anatomy of an Applicant bios, including this one for a Hopkins student who completed postbac work and is now a student at UT Southwestern.

Why Not Apply to All the Med Schools?

Question: I’ve heard that most people apply to about 20 medical schools, but also that only about 40% of applicants get into medical school every year. Why not just apply to a lot more schools to have a better chance at getting in?

Answer: There are a few reasons that we recommend students limit the number of schools. First, it’s financially expensive: each school is about a $130 cost between primary (common) and secondary (school-specific) application. There are also many schools that take zero to few out of state residents, so time and money spent on those applications could be better invested elsewhere. You also don’t want to apply anywhere that you would not be happy attending, in terms of the school and what it offers, including its location—you do not want to apply, be accepted to only one school that you don’t actually want to attend, and turn down that acceptance; this is a significant red flag in the process and could be viewed as a lack of commitment to the medical profession. But most significantly, it takes time to properly research each school and write a tailored secondary application in a timely manner. Students who apply to too many schools may spread themselves too thin and return poorly-constructed secondaries, which can negatively affect their candidacy, or spend too much time on “reach” schools to the detriment of their candidacy at schools where they may be a better fit. You will have a finite amount of time and money, focus and mental energy to commit to the application over the summer and you want to invest it wisely. We work closely with applicants to help them craft realistic school lists.

Problem-Based Learning

Question:  Hi Advisers - I am interested in going to a medical school with a Problem-Based Learning curriculum.  Where can I find a list of schools that offer PBL?  Do PBL medical schools generally differ at all in their undergraduate requirements?

Answer:  No, there are no specific undergraduate requirements for a “PBL” medical curriculum—nothing other than the pre-med requirements for all schools.  And regrettably, there isn't one comprehensive list of PBL curricula.  Some good reading on the topic, however, related to medical education and PBL, can be found at: You’re smart to be thinking about your learning style and how it might match up with the teaching methods at various medical schools.  Asking about the curriculum is a great topic for conversations with med school admissions personnel when they visit our campus or when you meet them at interviews. 

Medical Schools Overseas

Question: Hi HPA – I’m exploring all of my med school options. I know my grades aren’t competitive yet for MD programs so I’m looking into post-bac record enhancers, but a friend of mine suggested medical school outside of the US are less competitive for admission. What are your thoughts on these kinds of programs?

Answer: Fewer students with whom we work have attended medical schools outside of the US, so we have less information to work from than we do for US-based schools, but there are certainly many individuals who have successfully navigated medical school abroad, come back to the US, taken the required exams to qualify for residency, including receiving ECFMG certification, and gone on to practice. There are many schools in the Caribbean, Israel, Australia, among others, that cater to US citizens who cannot gain entry into US programs, at highly  variable rates of success. If you’re considering this route, be sure to do significant research into the support provided to students, the success of past students in terms of persistence rates (how many students who started the medical school successfully completed their studies) and residency match rates, the average time to graduation, average debt. Also consider your own comfort level with being so far away from your support systems, your ability to self-advocate, to adapt to new cultures and situations, and your academic readiness for medical school overall (for more questions to consider, check out this detailed website). As competition grows more intense for residency slots and US allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) medical programs increase the number of positions in their schools, international medical graduates are less likely to find residency positions, especially in more competitive specialties (in 2015, US MD seniors had a 93.9% match rate, whereas US citizen IMGs had a 53.1% match rate). In many cases, we would rather see students take a little more time to try to gain entrance into a US MD/DO school by taking more classes, gaining more clinical exposure, etc. – if that doesn’t work out, then looking into international medical schools may be an option worth exploring, and you’d be more ready for medical school generally with the additional preparation.

Mission Fit and Medical School Selection

Question: I know HPA suggests that we apply to medical schools that will be a good fit for us in terms of the school mission, but when I read mission statements, they all seem to say the same thing. Is there something I should be looking for? How do I convince a school that I’m a good fit for their mission?

Answer: There are some schools with very distinct missions while some may seem more general, but each mission statement has been crafted intentionally to convey the school’s guiding principles and focus concisely. Use your close reading skills to dissect these short statements. The more that you read, the more you’ll be able to start discerning differences and picking up on key ideas that have meaning for you as a future trainee and physician. Keep in mind there is no single right answer in terms of how to interpret a mission statement and why it resonates with you. Some schools also provide extra information about what matters most to them by defining core values, or give you a sense of their future direction with a vision statement – together, mission, vision, and core values drive the institution as a whole and are meant to serve as a framework and a unifier for the community.

As far as demonstrating your fit within the mission, your actions speak the loudest, and your words should back them up. For example, for a school like Cooper Rowan that emphasizes its commitment to serving underserved communities in its vision statement, your volunteer work, especially within these communities, will convey your fit, as will the way that you discuss why this work is meaningful to you. If a school emphasizes biomedical research and leadership, like Wash U in St Louis and you were a MOL major who led two student organizations, you may stand out as attractive to them.

Learn more about mission fit in this webinar featuring three medical school admissions representatives: Mission Fit: Applying to the Right Medical Schools for You

And a couple of associated short articles:
Mission Statements of Medical Schools: Here’s Why They Matter (by Kenneth Lin, MD)
Understand the Factors Behind Medical School Admissions (by Kathleen Franco, MD)

What Are Top Schools Looking For?

Hi HPA – I’m a sophomore and I feel like I’ve made a good academic adjustment. My grades are strong and I’m loving my academic path so far. While I know how hard it is to get into top med schools, is there anything I can do to try to maximize my chances?
It’s going to just sound like a series of platitudes, but they’re looking for future professionals who are intellectually curious, who embrace lifelong learning, and who have already proven themselves as leaders. They tend to seek innovators and visionaries who have a strong sense of themselves and their values, and who have the vision and drive to constantly improve and grow while also demonstrating a commitment to caring for patients from all backgrounds with humanism and empathy. Most schools’ admissions websites include something about selection factors (e.g.,  NYUWash UCornell); if they do not state them directly, you can glean them from the school’s mission and how they present themselves through their online admissions information. The MSAR online publication also includes data for each medical school regarding the range of MCAT scores and GPAs for accepted applicants, as well as how many of their students participated in clinical volunteering, shadowing, research, community service, military service, and other experiences. You can subscribe to the website for an annual membership fee or access it on the HPA computers for free. As with all medical schools, use the AAMC Core Competencies as a backbone for preparation and seek to develop them through deep involvement in a curriculum and co-curricular activities that are meaningful to you, then be ready to help others understand the meaning that you found in your choices through the way that you present yourself as a future physician in your application and your interviews.

New U.S. Medical Schools

Question:  I’m a sophomore so won’t be applying to med school for another year or two, maybe more.  I’ve heard that there are a lot of new medical schools opening up.  How will this affect me?  Where are they?  And is it really risky to go to a new med school?  By the time I apply, there may be more new ones established.  Just wondering.  Thanks HPA!

Answer:  Questions like yours are coming up more and more among the prospective applicants we see at HPA.  Many of you may not be aware of the fact that we are experiencing a significant growth in the number of allopathic (MD-granting) and osteopathic (DO-granting) medical schools.  It’s true, several have opened their doors in recent years, and there are more in the planning and accreditation stages.  You can follow the status of the new schools as they progress through the rigorous stages of the MD accreditation sequence on the LCME web site: (if you’ve got some time to kill!).  Most schools are being founded in areas of the country traditionally lacking in adequate healthcare, with the hopes that the physicians they produce might remain in the region after graduation.  We encourage you to include a new school on your list if you’re genuinely curious about it, keeping an open, yet critical mind throughout the interview process.  New schools may be good options for some of you. 

When Should I Make My Med School List?

Question: Hi HPA – When do applicants usually decide where to apply to medical school? What should I be doing in the years before I apply to start learning about schools?
Answer: Almost all applicants include their public state schools on their list, so early on, check your state schools to be sure that you’re fulfilling their requirements (if you don’t know your state schools, use the AAMC Medical School Admission Requirements site to find them: Prior to the summer that you apply, no deep research is really required, but here are a few places to gain a general idea of what medical schools have to offer: 

  • Wednesday School Spotlights on the HPA Facebook page. We post a new brief snapshot of a medical school every week in the spring.
  • All Access Medical School Podcast: Christian Essman, the director of admissions at Case Western Med, interviews his admissions colleagues who provide overviews of their schools and admission processes.
  • AAMC Virtual Fair: On February 20, over 70 medical schools will have booths where they’ll share information and answer questions. Log into this free event and take a look around. You can spend time in public chatrooms with individual schools and see what kinds of questions others are asking or join in the conversations yourself.
  • HPA Data Binder: In the HPA office, our data binder includes lists of where our applicants were accepted and where they matriculated in the past four years.
  • School visits, open houses, fairs: A few medical schools visit Princeton every year to provide information sessions to students.  Some medical schools offer open houses on their own campuses. There are some graduate/professional school fairs at other campuses that invite guests to attend like the Philadelphia/Main Line fair next month. We advertise these in Vitals.

Applicants should have their school list finalized by June. Some will submit the application with one school listed to secure an early place in the verification line (the longer you wait, the longer the verification process starts). They can then do additional school research and add more schools without losing their place in line.